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UMass men’s basketball looks to take next step before conference play begins

AMHERST — After watching roommates Raphiael Putney and Jesse Morgan break out for big games recently, University of Massachusetts junior point guard Chaz Williams wondered the same thing he’s wondered many times this season — how good could the Minutemen be if everyone played well on the same night.

“It sticks in our mind. We all sit in the room and say what if we all click at the same time,” Williams said. “It could be a very explosive night. ... We’re starting to come together. We have to continue to keep working to take the next step.”

The Minutemen hope that next step comes against Eastern Michigan on Saturday. Their final nonconference game is at 2 p.m. at the Mullins Center. UMass is on a six-game winning streak, but it had to hang on in each of those games, watching seemingly comfortable leads turn into nail-biters.

“All these close games are preparing us for what’s coming in the future,” junior Sampson Carter said.

The Minutemen open conference play on the road next week with Saint Louis on Thursday and Fordham on Jan. 13.

Carter hoped Saturday would help prepare UMass for the Atlantic 10.

“We have to be better. The conference has gotten better. Everybody has to bring it because it’s about to get harder now,” he said. “We’re all mature enough. We’re all strong enough to know that it’s time to pull it together.”

Eastern Michigan’s 7-6 record is a bit deceiving as three of its wins have come against non-Division I teams — Rochester College, Madonna and Siena Heights. On the other hand, three of the Eagles’ losses came at Kentucky, at Michigan and at Syracuse, all of which have been ranked in the top five at some point this season.

EMU’s best win is a 47-44 upset of Purdue at home. It also won the EMU Ice Man Classic sweeping Eastern Illinois, Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Texas Pan American.

The Eagles have yet to win outside of Ypsilanti, Mich. Losses to Jacksonville State and Illinois-Chicago also came on the road.

Coach Rob Murphy is a former assistant for Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and employs a similar zone to the Orange.

“We have to make some shots and try to attack it from the inside out. Murph was an assistant at Syracuse and kind of like the Jim Boeheim philosophy,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “They play very much like a Syracuse team. You’ve got to make some open 3s. You’ve got to put them in the basket.”

Kellogg hoped to get his team out in transition to prevent EMU from setting up its zone.

“Because of their size in the zone, it’s an important thing to get some transition baskets and get up and down the floor,” he said.

The game figures to be a tug-of-war for tempo as Eastern Michigan wants to play at a much slower pace. The Eagles have scored 60 points or less in 10 games against Division I teams. Their 57.8 points per game average, which is 328th in the nation, drops to 52.3 against Division I foes. Their shooting percentage contributes to the low totals as well. Their .386 average is 327th in the nation.

Murphy has shaken up his lineup lately, moving two double-digit scorers — senior guard Derek Thompson (11.6 ppg) and junior forward Glenn Bryant (10.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg) — to the bench. But both figure to be among the Eagles’ leaders in minutes. Junior wing Daylen Harrison is the leading scorer among starters at 10.3 points per game.

Like many zone teams, rebounding can be a challenge. Syracuse transfer Da’Shonte Riley, a 7-foot, 233-pound junior center, leads the team with 6.5 boards per game.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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